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I have much food to blog about. So much food. But before I get into the vast meals, let's stop to consider just one dish. Not even a dish really, a simple sweet made of rice flour, coconut, pandan and palm sugar. But as simple as they are, putu piring are one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten. They come in packs of five and Kenny tells me he has been known to buy four packs all for himself. He's not an especially greedy person, but these things are like crack. We went to the pasar malam or night market at Geylang Serai that was packed with Ramadan crowds, and then headed to the Haig Road hawker centre. Among the savoury food Kenny picked us up some packs of putu piring from this bright little stall. Somehow we knew this was not something to hold out till dessert. No, in between mouthfuls of soup, we moved in on the fluffy little morsels. With a pandan scent from fresh leaves, and oozing with gula melaka, these steamed rice and coconut cakes are transcendentally good. Read the rest of this entry »
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It’s Rosh Hashanah and regular readers will know that I have a real love for holiday cooking. Jewish New Year is celebrated with apples and honey, and one of the traditional dishes is a dark and moist honey cake. Some people don’t like honey cake because bad versions tend to be dry. It can also be very heavily spiced with cinnamon and cloves, which I  find a bit overwhelming. So in thinking about honey cake, I wanted to start from a recipe I knew would be good and moist and I also wanted to think about ways to alter the flavours a bit to my own taste.

I began Smitten Kitchen’s recipe, which she herself adapted from Marcy Goldman’s Treasure of Jewish Holiday Baking. But I wasn’t keen on the idea of whisky and I wanted a rather different flavour profile. So instead of the traditional spices, I made a chai masala – the aromatic spice mix that goes into Indian tea. Chai masala has some of the same notes as a spiced cake – cinnamon and cloves – but it adds to them cardamom, mace, ginger and nutmeg. I love masala tea and its blend of peppery and perfumey spices with sweet tea seemed like rather a good combination for a cake. I also replaced the booze with apples, partly to keep tea the predominant liquid flavour and partly because I wanted to add a bit of New Year apples to the mix. Read the rest of this entry »

I know, another dessert from me, what’s the world coming to? Baking-phobic that I am, I have had one signal success in the world of desserts and that’s my pandan cheesecake. I’ve always loved pandan, a flavour that does the work of a kind of Asian vanilla. It is sweet but with a background nuttiness that works in both sweet and savoury dishes. Pandan leaves are wrapped around chicken and grilled in Southeast Asia, but you most often come across pandan in the form of a concentrated essence, like vanilla, used to make bright green cakes or dessert noodles. I have a couple of problems with these uses though: first, the bottles of essence taste kind of chemically and second, I am really not a fan of those dry Asian cakes. I know, it’s probably a cultural bias but I do think cake is one area in which European and American cultures have Asia beaten. So, I came up with the idea of an East meets West dessert: New York style creamy cheesecake flavoured with pandan.

Over the weekend we had a visit from the Crocodiles, down from London and expecting to be impressed with some kind of Asian feast. It was nervous-making: they are very serious foodies with strong opinions on Chinese food in particular. I didn’t have the nerve to cook Chinese for them but I did put together a fun Vietnamese menu: thick rice noodles with fried pork skin and coconut milk, aromatic braised pork osso buco, sour soup with monkfish, and bitter melon salad. The pandan cheesecake seemed like an appropriate end to the meal, even though it’s not Vietnamese. I think I love it because it represents my cooking background – New York influenced by the Asian flavours of Chinatown.

Pandan Cheesecake

  • 3 digestive biscuits
  • 6 ginger biscuits
  • 85 g melted butter
  • 900 g cream cheese
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 cups caster sugar
  • 400 g sour cream
  • 1/4 cup pandan juice (see below)

Your first order of business is to extract the pandan juice, and this you can use for all kinds of things. You need pandan leaves, fresh or frozen, to begin with, which are available from many Asian markets.

Chop 12 leaves into 2 inch chunks, put them in a food processor or blender and add about a 1/2 cup of water.

Now blend until they are as mushed up as possible – you might need to stop and stir them a few times as the leaves are a bit resistant.

Next, put the mix through a cheesecloth and sieve into a bowl. Squish and squeeze the leaves with a spatula or your fingers to get all the liquid out.

You’ll end up with a thin but deep jade coloured liquid that’s ready for cooking.

Heat the oven to 250 F / 130 C / gas mark 1/2. This cake is going to cook very very gently! Butter a springform pan. In a large bowl, mix the cream cheese and sugar with a hand mixer. In a separate bowl, beat six eggs, just to mix, then add these in to the cheese and sugar. This is the part where you have to just not think about how many calories you are planning to ingest. Add the pandan juice and the sour cream and mix well.

At this point, the cake mix will seem very liquidy. The pandan juice adds quite a bit of liquid but have faith. Pour into the springform pan and place on a baking tray on the bottom shelf in the oven. Cook for two hours – keep an eye on it as it may take a bit more or less. When the outside is firm but toward the centre is still pretty wibbly, turn off the oven and let it cool a bit in there. Then take it out and cover with a teatowel to cool before putting in the fridge to set for a few hours.

Serves 12.

Regular readers will have noticed that I’m not really a dessert person. First of all, I don’t have an enormously sweet tooth but mostly I am just not a baker. I completely subscribe to the idea that the world is split into cooks and bakers and I’m massively impressed by anyone who can do both. My grandmother was a baker: family lore has it that she was frustrated by my grandfather’s culinary conservatism and channeled all of her creative energies into the medium of cake. As a child, I loved going to her house because there was always a freshly made coconut cake or an Albert cake on hand. My mother, by contrast, is a cook: her lasagne is legendary and she makes a pretty good chicken korma too. I’ve inherited my mother’s love of cooking but whereas she can actually make a lovely dessert, I am terrified of the entire world of baking. I never know what things are supposed to look like at each stage and it all seems so unforgiving. That’s why I love this beautiful Seville orange cake recipe, which seems entirely idiot-proof… Read the rest of this entry »

After a long train journey north, we spent last night in Sukhothai. Our first night out of Bangkok was a bit of a blur of brightly lit stores, birds congregating at Hitchcock levels on electrical wires, dilapidated buildings and busy night streets. We ate dinner at a sidewalk cafe, which sounds a lot more fancy than it was. Our table was on the street, sandwiched between teenagers on Vespas hanging out on one side and a Thai soap opera playing silently on the other. In other words, it was pretty much my ideal eatery. After missing out on pad krapow for breakfast, I had it for dinner, with our guide Aom ordering it properly pet, or spicy for me. Mr Lemur had wide noodles that were revelatory: their relationship to noodles at home being the difference between pasta by Buitoni and pasta fresh made by your Italian grandmother. But the highlight of the evening was watching the hawker cart ladies at work. We followed up our meal with Thai roti: puffed up roti dough filled with banana, crisply fried on a griddle and then – wait for it – doused in chocolate sauce and condensed milk. Yeah, you think Thai food is all light and healthy with the salads and all, but there are enough fried things to keep any sweet lover happy. 

 

Her speed throwing the roti out was astonishing. She flips the dough back and forth till it’s paper thin. It’s a joy to watch her work.

Next comes the magic of puffed bread, with a generous helping of banana in the centre.

Can you tell we were awaiting our roti with excitement?

Just look at the condensed milk! This is the part that had Mr Lemur drooling. 

The finished article. The chocolate sauce is homemade, and the whole thing was a decadent treat. It’s possible that I’ll come home from Asia a couple of sizes larger…but it will totally be worth it.

 

I’ve spent most of this past week with old friends K & L. I met them in Providence, RI more years ago than any of us care to remember, but since then we’ve been barely missing each other in our various moves around and across the Atlantic. We lived just a few blocks apart in New York – except I moved there after they left – and both spent time in the Midwest – but only overlapped for a year. Although I speak to K on the phone more or less daily, we only get to cook together every couple of years, which is beyond wrong. K is one of the best cooks I know, with Italian cooking skills from his family that I’m massively jealous of (seriously, the man makes the best gnocchi ever) and an amazing feel for ingredients. The first time we cooked together was a wonderfully disastrous attempt to make the volcano chocolate cakes that were fashionable in the 1990s. Something went horribly wrong and we ended up with what was basically a vat of liquid chocolate ganache. But, you know, delicious liquid chocolate ganache that we totally ate anyway. Most everything I’ve cooked or eaten with him since then has been perfect, so I’ve been looking forward to the culinary possibilities of his visit.

Friday was L’s birthday so we wanted something suitably festive for dinner. K suggested doing a version of Paul Bertolli’s strawberry sorbet recipe that we’d made once before in Michigan. The recipe is brilliantly easy: no ice-cream maker required and no ingredients beyond fruit and a bit of sugar and water. I’m not a great maker of desserts so simplicity always appeals. Plus, it’s the middle of English strawberry season and I’ve been thinking about the combination of strawberries and black pepper since I read Miss Cay’s jam recipe and brought back the most amazing Madagascan black pepper from Paris. It was all coming together…

We futzed around with Bertolli’s recipe a bit: since neither of us likes our sorbet terribly sweet, we cut down the sugar and added in a bunch of black pepper instead. We also cut down on the water, since it already seemed liquidy enought. The basic technique is so simple that you could probably play with it a fair amount. Since we were celebrating L’s birthday in England, and during Wimbledon to boot, we thought it only correct to serve the sorbet with Jersey cream and shortbread biscuits. (Er, this might undermine the ‘not too sweet’ part but hey, it was a special occasion.)

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A research trip to Stockholm is providing my latest opportunity for international culinary adventure. I might be slightly held back by the cost though – I spent £25 (about $50) on a three-day metro card and about the same for a sandwich and a coffee in the airport. Eek! I think I’m going to have to forget I know the exchange rate and just put things on my credit card and worry about it later. One thing I did notice in my brief bout of Internet research on the Stockholm restaurant scene is that the fancier the restaurant, the less exorbitant the prices seem. A cheap lunch is several times more than it would be in the UK but a high end meal is just 10% or so more. So clearly, the fancy places are a better deal and I should go there, right?

On our first night we went to Södra Theatre restaurant, which has a beautiful outdoor terrace overlooking the city. Even better, they give you free blankets when the temperature drops, so you can wrap up and enjoy your after dinner drinks in coziness. It’s like a slanket service – genius!

Our starter was amazing: a crayfish and pickled apple roll with Avruga caviar and cheese bread. The pickled apple was sliced thinly and formed the outside of the rolls; the inside was stuffed with fresh crayfish. Little sweet caviar piles were joined by some kind of honey sauce. The whole thing was spectacularly good and completely fulfilled my hopes for new Nordic cuisine.

The main courses were a little disappointing after such a beautiful beginning, and all of us reported a heavy hand with the salt. But they weren’t bad – just not revelatory. I had ox cheek braised in red wine with cheese-flavoured mashed potatoes, fried onions and pickled gherkins. The cheek was rich and meaty, though the potatoes tasted more of salt than cheese.

Consensus of opinion seemed to be that the best dish was lamb with chorizo, beans and lentils, which may have been because of its delicious roast garlic gravy.

We’d already watched desserts go by with some interest (especially the smaller members of our group) so despite being pretty full we went for apple and cardamom pie. The “pie” was deconstructed with apple slices rolled up and placed atop a crumbled base, with sides of custard, apple sorbet and addictive sour apple candy strips. As is often the case with high end restaurants, the smaller, more delicate dishes surpassed the meaty mains for inventiveness, originality and flavour.

I only have a couple of days here in Stockholm, but hopefully I can fit in another culinary foray. I’ll keep you posted.